Being able to identify someone’s primary community is an awesome skill to have in India. But sometimes just figuring what name to call them is an even greater feat.
Indian Naming Conventions
Names are complicated in India primarily because there are so many Indias to deal with. So much so that the British Government even issued this official naming practice guide with a lengthy section on India. Here are just a few of the things that go into an Indian name.
Given Name – This is the name people use at work, or the one they give to strangers they just met. It is their basic or ‘real’ name, but it’s just the beginning.
Pet Name – Growing up, very few people were called by their given name. Nearly every Indian given name can be turned into a cute name for a toddler (Subbu, Chinu, Kuttu, Paapa, etc.). Some close friends and family will continue to use this as a nickname through adulthood.
Relational Name – Relational terms are ubiquitous throughout India. This means that any male younger than you may be called ‘little brother’ (even outside your family). Any female of a generation older than you will be some form of ‘auntie’. I was once sitting around with a family where everyone was trying to guess an older man’s given name, because everyone only called him ‘Uncle’.
Family Name – Westerners call this a ‘last name’ or ‘surname’. The family name might denote a certain community/caste, or the village someone comes from. If they have the suffix -walla (or a variant), it means their ancestors practiced a certain trade, as -walla loosely means ‘one who does something’ (chai-walla means someone who sells chai). Someone told me they had met someone with the family name Sodabottleopenerwalla.
Father’s Name – Many parts of India use the father’s given name as a part of the official name. This is chiefly true in Tamil Nadu where many people don’t use family names at all. This is one reason why you see “Father’s name” show up on many government forms like the visa application.
Official Name – If you ever get a chance to see your Indian friend’s passport or PAN card, you might be surprised by the names. An official name may include the full form of a given name, father’s name, grandfather’s name, family name, or locality name, depending on the community, as well as which local government issued the ID. I had a friend for whom it took several years to get a license in the US because the name on his Indian driver’s license did not match up with his passport.
Religious Name – During an important community event, someone may receive a second name. It is not used for official purposes. Either the religious name or the given name might begin with a certain letter depending on the day they were born according to their horoscope.
Married Name – Some women take their husband’s family name (or given name) directly into their own name, but not all. It’s a load of paperwork to officially change a name, so some women may go by one name, but their official documents are still in their maiden name.
Initials – In the south, many people use an initial in front of their name, such as V. Anand. In this case, the given name is Anand, and the V represents his father’s name (Vishwanathan). Therefore you should call him Anand. People from other parts of India also use initials (like M.S. Dhoni). In addition to the father’s name, these initials might also refer to the place of birth or community name.
Order of names – The order someone’s names appear in can be tricky as well. Sometimes the given name is first, sometimes it’s second (or later).
Meanings of names – One unique thing you will find in India is that everyone knows what their name means. Parents put a lot of thought into giving their child a name that sounds nice, and also has a lot of meaning. This can be a great kick-starter to a conversation, especially if they tell you the names of their children.
Now I’m more confused. How do I actually address someone I meet?
Before attempting to call someone by name, brush up on your Indian honorifics (forthcoming article). Simply saying ‘Sir’ or ‘Ma’am’ might be enough if the person is older than you or has a higher status.
However, if you are working with a lot of peers or younger Indians, you will need to learn their names. Knowing the above information will put you in a better place to guess what someone’s name is. Asking “What should I call you?” will work in some peer-level relationships. But if you are coming in as a Managing Director and asking a junior sales rep, the answer is typically “Anything, sir.”
Use your best judgment, don’t use initials, but always be aware that you might be calling someone the wrong name. Listen to how others address him/her, and be ready to change along the way.